110 Years Ago the Wright Brothers took flight


110 years ago one of the most significant aviation milestones took place in the sand dunes near Kitty Hawk, in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. On Dec 17th, 1903 at 10:35am, brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright conducted the first ever controlled heavier than air, engine powered flight in the aircraft they designed and built themselves, the Wright Flyer. After 4 years of experimenting in flight control the Wright brothers, formerly known for their bicycle and print shop in Dayton, Ohio had succeeded where all others had failed. The development of “wing warping” and a moveable rudder to control the aircraft, accompanied with a suitable engine were key to the success of their aerodynamic design.

Orville & Wilbur Wright in 1905  Wright Brothers
Orville & Wilbur Wright in 1905 (photo source: US Library of Congress)

Earlier this year I visited the Wright Brothers National Monument which is in an area of dunes in Kill Devil Hills where the flight actually took place. The town of Kill Devil Hills was incorporated in 1953 but was just a remote sparsely populated area 50 years earlier when the Wright Brothers decided it was perfect for their experiments in flight.

Wright Brothers National Monument NC
Wright Brothers National Monument
Wright Brothers National Monument Kill Devil Hills NC
Wright Brothers National Monument up close
Orville Wright Brother National Monument
Orville Wright
Wilbur Wright Brother National Monument
Wilbur Wright

Each year from 1900 to 1903 the Wright brothers would come to Kill Devil Hills to test their gliders (unmanned and manned) and ultimately the Wright Flyer which they had designed and built back in Ohio (they continued to use the site for flight testing until 1911). They would set up camp out there for weeks on end conducting their experiments and tinkering with their designs. Eventually it all paid off for them but there was a close call.

Orville & Wilbur Wright building the 1903 Flyer at Kill Devil Hills
Orville & Wilbur Wright building the 1903 Flyer at Kill Devil Hills (photo source: wright-brothers.org)
Wright Brothers Kill Devil Hils camp Wright Flyer
The 1903 camp at Kill Devil Hills (photo source: wright-brothers.org)

On December 14th, 1903 just a few days before the successful flight, Wilbur (following a coin toss win) attempted a short 3 second flight in the Wright Flyer which almost ended in disaster. Following take off the engine stalled and the aircraft suffered minor damage following the crash (it was not classed as the first flight as it was not a controlled flight). Luckily the brothers were able to make the necessary repairs and get the Wright Flyer into the air just 3 days later.

Wright Brothers december 14 trial flight
Preparing for the December 14th trial flight (photo source: wright-brothers.org)
damage to Wright Flyer 1903
The aftermath of the December 14th flight trial (photo source: wright-brothers.org)

The first flight completed in the Wright Flyer on December 17th, 1903 was piloted by Orville (it was his turn following the coin toss on December 14th), at 10:35am as it started to travel along the guiding rail, Wilbur ran alongside and the Flyer lifted into the air,  travelling for a mere 12 seconds just above the ground, covering 120 feet /37 metres. This short flight marked one of the greatest achievements in history! Fortunately the moment was captured on film and remains one of the most famous photos in history.

Wright Brothers Wright Flyer first flight December 17 1903 Kill Devil Hills Kitty Hawk North Carolina
The first flight (photo source; US Library of Congress)

On that same day they completed 3 more successful flights, each travelling further than the last (they flew 2 flights each). The second flight was ready to go at 11:20 am and in 12 seconds they travelled 175 feet / 53 metres. The third flight took off at 11:40am, lasting 15 seconds they travelled 200 feet / 61 metres.

Wright Flyer third flight december 17 1903
A close call during the third flight (photo source: wright-brothers.org)

The last flight for the day was the one the Wright Brothers considered a success. The Wright Flyer flew for 59 seconds and travelled 852 feet /260 metres. Unfortunately the front elevator of the Flyer was damaged on this flight, then in a gust of wind the aircraft was overturned many times and basically destroyed. This historic aircraft would never fly again. Hence it was the last flight for the day! Despite this setback the Wright brothers achieved their personal dream, became national heroes and changed the world forever on that day!

Wright Brothers 4th flight 1903
The fourth flight (photo source: wright-brothers.org)
Damage to the Wright Flyer following the 4th flight (prior to the severe damage caused by the overturning of the aircraft 1903
Damage to the Wright Flyer following the 4th flight but prior to the severe damage caused by the overturning of the aircraft (photo source: wright-brothers.org)

The Wright brothers then dedicated their lives to aviation. On May 14th, 1908 another piece of history was made near Kitty Hawk when Wilbur Wright completed the first ever passenger flight by taking mechanic Charles Furnas aloft in a Wright Flyer (they flew for 2 miles / 3.2 kilometres that day). By 1905 the Wright Brothers had what they considered a practical aircraft in their Wright Flyer III (on October 5th, 1905 Wilbur flew the aircraft for 39 minutes travelling a circuit of around 24 miles / 39 kilometres). By 1910 aircraft were in operation around the world in both civilian and military use including many built by the Wright brothers themselves. The first ever military aeroplane was a 1909 Wright Military Flyer which was purchased by the US Army.

Replica Wright Flyer and Wright Glider at the Wright Brothers National Monument
Replica Wright Flyer and Wright Glider at the Wright Brothers National Monument

Sadly Wilbur (1867-1912) died of Typhoid Fever at just 45 years of age and never truly got to see the impact of his invention which really took hold on the world during World War One and onwards. Orville (1871-1948) on the other hand enjoyed a long and wealthy life passing away at the age of 75 due to a heart attack. Following Wilbur’s death, Orville took over as the president of the Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company but he was not as interested  as his older brother in the business side of things and sold the company in 1915. Orville spent the last few decades of his life Orville serving on various aviation related boards and committees and continued to influence the aviation industry.

Wright Brothers first flight kitty hawk NC 1903
Where history was made in 1903

It was amazing to finally see in person a place I had first read about as a kid. The area has changed a lot since 1903, most of the sand dunes have drifted away and grass now covers much of the area but it was fantastic to stand where the Wright brothers made their first flights and also to see how far they flew, which was not really that far at all! Each flight has a marker stone to indicate where they took off from and the distance they achieved.

Wright Brothers national Memorial first flight
The marker that indicates where the flights started from
Wright Brothers flight markers
Looking towards the flights took place
Wright brothers flight landing markers Kill Devil Hills Kittyhawk NC
The landing points of each flight
Wright Brothers landing point of the 4 flight
Looking back from the landing point of the 4 flight

The Wright Brothers National Monument is a fitting tribute to these great men. Standing up on the last remaining large sand dune and taking in the area below, where the flights took place was a significant moment in my own quest for discovery in regards to aviation history.

Wilbur & Orville Wright Monument
Wilbur & Orville Wright
Kill Devil Hills NC 1903
The way the sand dunes looked in 1903
Wright Brothers National Memorial
Sand dune today
Wright Brothers flight December 17th, 1903 Kitty Hawk NC
Looking back to where the historic flights took place on December 17th, 1903 – you can see how much things have changed. Look at all those houses too!

What happened to the original 1903 Wright Flyer that completed the first powered flight? Thankfully it was preserved and rebuilt. It is now on display at the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum in Washington DC. The Smithsonian also has the first ever military aeroplane the 1909 Wright Military Flyer. After going to Kitty Hawk I had to make another visit to DC and go see the Wright Flyer.

The original 1903 Wright Flyer at the Smithsonian in DC
The original 1903 Wright Flyer at the Smithsonian in DC
The unique pilots position in the 1903 Wright Flyer Smithsonian DC
The unique pilots position in the 1903 Wright Flyer
The original 1903 Wright Flyer at the Smithsonian in DC
The original 1903 Wright Flyer at the Smithsonian in DC

Thank you Orville and Wilbur. Your contribution to aviation is one of the most significant moments in history and one I truly appreciate!

Wright Brothers National Monument
My Mecca
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4 Comments Add yours

  1. Sheridan says:

    For a subject I’m not overly interested in I couldn’t stop reading! Would someone give Deano a travel writing job? It’s great!

  2. Mary says:

    Nice post! Thanks for sharing the information. Glad you had the chance to see the Wright Brothers National Memorial.

    1. Deano says:

      Thanks. Yeah it was great to go there

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